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Writing Entry: State Capitol Bureau

Written by Tim Lambert, witf Multimedia News Director | Feb 1, 2016 9:32 AM

WITF's Pennsylvania Capitol Bureau brings stories of state government to public radio stations across Pennsylvania. It works to makes sense of incremental changes that can take years to calcify into a discernible story.  WITF's Mary Wilson examine the actions and inactions of state agencies, courts, and legislators - highlighting what's significant, what's consequential, and what's downright bizarre.

 

 Story 1: One Nonprofit Dreads Another Month Without A State Budget (3:24)

 

(Gettysburg) -- Across the commonwealth, social service nonprofits have seen their work interrupted by a new challenge: keeping their operations afloat without their government funding.

They are juggling overdue bills, trying to hang onto staff, all the while struggling to provide their most essential services.

In Adams County, the domestic violence shelter called Survivors can sum up its difficulties with these numbers: 70 and 111.  

WITF's Mary Wilson reports that's how many adults and children have been turned away by the shelter since the budget impasse began.

 

To get into the domestic violence shelter just off the main drag in Gettysburg, you have to know what you're looking for. The building doesn't advertise what it is. You ring a buzzer to enter. You sign a form promising not to divulge the identity of anyone you might meet or hear about while inside.

And up a creaky staircase is the office of Terri Hamrick, who runs the place.

"OK. Do you want me to move over? What is easiest for you?"

 Hamrick is a natural problem-solver. Her job is to care for people at some of the lowest points of their lives - when they feel unsafe at home, they can call the shelter's hotline and expect to be taken in. 

 "... even if you sleep in a children's room, or we put an air mattress in an office, you know, we'll figure it out."

Figuring it out has gotten harder. The budget impasse is holding up 80 percent of the shelter's public funding. That has made it difficult to move people out of the shelter and into safe living situations.

So right now, it doesn't have the room or resources to take in more people.

"Hamrick's eyes well up, and she clenches her hands together in her lap."

We try to provide other options, we tell them to call us. A lot of them ended up staying where they are. And some of them, we don't know where they went.

The shelter is making payroll thanks to a series of angel investors, basically, who have collectively loaned 145-thousand dollars since July. But that's not enough to cover everything - like  groceries, copy machines, pest control. Last month, the phones were disconnected.

"And we were able to get it turned back on. But then they told us, yeah, well, we can't promise to keep your hotline going-- WAIT A SECOND, THE HOTLINE? THE ONE THAT TAKES EMERGENCY CALLS? -- Yes, they threatened our hotline. They said if we didn't pay an additional amount of money, that they would be cutting that off as well."

Some people ask why nonprofits like Hamrick's don't just lay off a few people to wait out the budget impasse. Here's why: it could cause her unemployment compensation costs to spike. Shutting down temporarily isn't a solution either. The shelter gets paid by the government AFTER it provides services. No services, no check.

 "... So we are caught both ways."

Hamrick says she hasn't been sleeping well. She is plagued by thoughts of all the little things that could close the shelter for good - an infestation of bedbugs or a broken toilet.

 Hamrick's office is on the second floor of her building. From her desk, she can look out a window onto the backyard. All summer, she saw moms sitting out there talking, maybe playing with their kids...

 "The thought of having to go downstairs and tell the ladies and their children, that I'm sorry, and we are not going to be able to continue, just absolutely makes me sick."

Lawmakers say they've reached a breakthrough on budget talks. But Terri isn't celebrating yet. She and hundreds of other nonprofit directors are still running endgame scenarios, counting the people they turned away, remembering all the problems they couldn't solve.

 

Story 2: Innocent or guilty, charged attorney general's tenure rife with warning signs (Running time 3:40)

 

(Undated) -- The state attorney general is fighting for her political life. Kathleen Kane was arraigned Saturday on charges including perjury and criminal conspiracy.

The legal battle she faces now is wildly different than the political future envisioned for her when she was elected.

But as WITF's Mary Wilson reports from the state Capitol, there were warning signs throughout Kane's tenure that her approach to her office was problematic.

 

In December of 2013, Kathleen Kane was at the top of the heap. She glided through a ritzy soiree of Pennsylvania politicos with a prominent Democratic rainmaker at her side.

"I'm raising money because I'm always prepared..."

Less than a year later, a grand jury put a target on her back. And last week Kane was charged for allegedly spilling secrets of a past investigation to seek revenge on her critics. Prosecutors say she made matters worse by lying about it under oath.

Kane says she's innocent and will fight the charges -- without resigning, though top Democrats are calling for her to step down.

Regardless of her innocence or guilt, Kane's tenure has been dotted with red flags - public missteps about cases, turmoil within her office, and a habit of keeping the media -- and the public -- at arm's length.

I do expect a candidate to stand up for the truth, regardless of whether it's in his own political interests, or goes against his own political ambitions."

Kane said that during a debate with her 2012 campaign opponent. But once elected, she made major misstatements that forced her office to backpedal. She alleged that the slow pace of a major child sex abuse investigation under her predecessor gave a child predator time to find new victims.

"Uh, yes, we do have two individuals..."

The explosive statement turned out to be false.

On another occasion, Kane incorrectly alleged that employees of the attorney general's office had exchanged e-mails containing child porn.

Under Kane, the attorney general's office botched a classic corruption case at the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Eight people were charged with bilking the state out of millions of dollars, but none saw prison time. Reporter Brad Bumsted, with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review followed the case closely. He said it was understaffed, with just one prosecutor on board.          

"She's there by herself, while there are eight attorneys on the other side for the defense, and these are very good defense attorneys... I mean, she's not up against rookies."

For former attorney general Ernie Preate, the allegations of the present can be traced back to the media's failures of the past. Preate resigned from the A-G's office in 1995 after pleading guilty to a mail fraud charge. He says the press never checked out Kane's campaign-trail claims that she prosecuted hundreds of cases.

"When I ran for attorney general, I had to bring for example a the case numbers of the 19 murder cases that I prosecuted, the verdicts of five death penalty cases I got. I had to show them... these are the cases that I say that I did, here they are, check it out, and they did."

The state's top news outlets were divided on the question of Kane's experience. But it's true that her resume received minimal scrutiny. In a debate with her 2012 opponent Republican Dave Freed, she was asked about her lack of managerial experience. Here is how she answered:

"I am a mother of two boys who are sitting right over here.  I can see what they're doing over there and pay attention to Mr. Freed and everyone else. So I am a good multi-tasker."

Office turnover during Kane's tenure is well-documented. She chewed through six press secretaries in two years. Several top deputies resigned

And then there's her poor relationship with the press. Kane frequently dodged reporters, even when it seemed to do her a disservice.

Chuck Ardo, Kane's current spokesman, says Kane's missteps are undeniable. But he says she faced resistance as the state's first elected Democratic attorney general.  

"There was certainly an old guard in the office that did its best to undermine her from the day she was elected. There is very little argument about that."

 The first response to the indictment last week came not from Kane's defense lawyer, but from the Office of Attorney General. In the written statement, Kane promised to fight the charges and said her office would continue to "fulfill its mission to protect and serve the citizens of Pennsylvania." It was not the first time she insisted that her own fight furthers that end.

Story 3: State Police In A Rut On Diversity Efforts (Running time 6:48)

 

(Harrisburg) -- The Pennsylvania State Police have struggled to boost their racial diversity for decades, and the pressure to do so could intensify under Governor Tom Wolf's administration.

 As WITF's Mary Wilson reports, former state troopers say the agency doesn't need more time or resources - just the drive to change.

 

 

(Bagpipes fade in)

 There are a lot of things you notice at a Pennsylvania State Police graduation:

 The lone bagpipe player leading cadets to their seats.

 Proud families craning to get a glimpse of their soon-to-be-trooper.

And white people. Mostly, white people.

 This class about to take the oath of office has 84 cadets - six of them are racial minorities.  

"(Ambi) Please raise your right hand..."

 The State Police have struggled with racial diversity for years. In 1973, they were taken to court by a civil rights lawyer alleging discriminatory hiring practices for blacks. Racial minorities made up about two percent of state police ranks at that time.

 The case was settled with a consent decree, that imposed strict hiring and promotion rules for racial minorities. There was a surge in black recruits.

 But in 1999, the consent decree was lifted. And the hiring of blacks took a dive.  

 The State Police had explanations. Minority troopers hired under the consent decree were hitting retirement age. The agency was competing with big businesses and city police departments for minority candidates. And they had to overcome distrust among the very communities they wanted to recruit.

 "I don't see that the department has lost its vigor to become more diverse."

 Lieutenant Paul Gaspich is a former recruitment director who's still with the State Police.

 "Again, we have a lot of retirements in the last few years that makes it look like our numbers have drastically dwindled. And I think it's simply due to the retirements, but our efforts have not dwindled. If that makes sense."

 Racial and ethnic minorities represent more than 21 percent of Pennsylvania's population. They make up just six percent of the overall State Police force - blacks alone make up three percent.

 But now, there are people who have been on the inside, trying to change the way the State Police pursue minority candidates.

 And now, those people are ready to talk.

 (Ambi fades in: Rick Brown showing off his hat and awards)

" The State Police was always known as the big hat man, all across the country..."

 Rick Brown keeps his State Police hat on display in his home office -- it's one of many mementos of his career with the agency. He retired about five years ago.  The walls here are covered with framed awards and pictures. He points to a photo of his state police academy class.

 "40 candidates in my class - half minority, half non-minority... these classes that were half-minority, we were considered "green" troopers, meaning Judge Clifford Scott Green."

 Green was the federal judge who had ordered a consent decree in response to the lawsuit alleging rampant discrimination at the State Police. Midway through Brown's career, the decree was lifted, meaning the State Police would no longer face strict hiring and promotion rules.

 The number of racial minorities in the state police began dropping. Lawmakers would ask about it at public hearings.

 "The state police response consistently at budget hearings... we can't get enough qualified applicants. I always felt that was garbage..."

 In 2008, as Brown neared retirement, he was asked to oversee the agency's recruiting effort. He figured he had two years to prove he could find more minority candidates for the State Police with smarter recruiting. He took it on with the zeal of a missionary - and the vocabulary of a marketing executive.

 "It's about getting our product out to those targeted groups. We can find white males all over the planet. We can't find enough minorities, people of color, and women."

 Brown prides himself on his work ethic, and he expected a lot from his team of State Police recruiters.

 "Are they being accessible in the evenings, or are they working 8-4 bankers' hours? ... it wasn't popular when I said you might have to work a weekend, because your candidate might work all week... there was a little bit of grumbling at first... if you want to work for the bank, go work for the bank."

 Under Brown's leadership, the State Police made applicant tests more convenient to schedule and take for people living in the state's major cities. Recruiters based in Philadelphia started a mentoring program. When there were complaints that the people conducting lie detector tests were biased, Brown's team had the sessions videotaped to make test administrators accountable for what happened in the room. Recruiters hosted open house events at State Police facilities. And Brown pushed his team to look for ever more ways to find potential candidates.

 About a year later, 2009, Brown was starting to see his team's hard work pay off.  Racial minorities made up a quarter of his roster of cadet candidates - people who had passed a written test and were invited to an interview. Brown told the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus it was the most diverse list of cadet candidates since 1999, when federal oversight of state police employment practices ended.

 "All of a sudden now, we're finding the applicants. We debunked the myth. And as a minority, you get tired of hearing that; 'we can't find qualified minorities, or women.' Oh, wait a minute."

 But we won't know if Brown's efforts would have made a difference to the State Police's overall diversity.

 The recession cratered funding for state police training, delaying the next training class for recruits by about a year.  Many of the candidates recruited by Brown's team moved on to other opportunities.

 The agency says many of the initiatives spearheaded by Brown and his team remain in place. Lie detector tests are still recorded on video. There's still an emphasis on community outreach and open house events. The efforts to make applicant tests more accessible for residents of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have stuck.    

 Corporal Daniel Gonzales is a longtime State Police recruiter. He says the agency has not wavered in its commitment to diversity since he's been there.

 "Obviously we have a lot more work to do we definitely want to increase our numbers and we're just going to continue to work hard on that... I think we have a long way to go. But it's a constant effort."

But a mentoring program that started in Philadelphia petered out after Brown retired and other members of the recruitment moved on. The same state budget cuts that quashed new cadet classes led the State Police to send its recruiters back to patrol duties for eight months. The move happened three days after Brown retired. He felt it showed a lack of commitment.

There is also the delicate subject of who is in charge. Brown is black man. His head of recruitment was black. The unit is now run by two white women.

"It's not bad, it just is."

John Bey worked under Brown as recruitment director. He retired from the State Police, and is now chief of police for Middletown, in Dauphin County. He wonders if it's possible to care enough about diversity if it isn't personal.

 "They're not nefarious, mean spirited people, they're big hearted, they'll give their life in a heartbeat for you, because that's what we do, but from a diversity and recruitment perspective, they just don't have the, they just don't have the background."

 For the small team that tried to reinvigorate State Police recruitment several years ago, it feels like the clock has been rolled back. It's been more than 40 years since a federal judge took the agency to task for not hiring enough racial minorities. The State Police are still trying to find their sense of urgency.

 

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